JCT Interviews…Karen Kirkham, JCT Chair

In the JCT Interviews… series we shine the spotlight on some of the key people who are involved with or give their time to support JCT, showing the diverse range of disciplines across the construction industry that our members represent and the collaborative work that contributes to the development of our contracts. We look at how our interviewees contribute to JCT specifically and gain their views on the wider industry and JCT’s role within it.

Karen Kirkham is the new JCT chair. She is a solicitor and head of construction at BDB Pitmans LLP with 30 years’ experience working with JCT contracts, advising clients from all sectors of the industry. Karen’s involvement and interest in JCT goes back a long way. She is a former legal director of the Construction Confederation during a key period for the industry when major legislation, including the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996 and Arbitration Act 1996, was being passed.

JCT: Karen, when did you first hear of JCT and what experience have you had with it through your career?

KK: I first “heard of” JCT in the early 90s when in local government and at that point had no idea what all these bits of paper (contract, amendments, CDP supplement, sectional completion supplement – those were the days!) actually were. After more construction experience at RBKC, in 1996 I joined the Construction Confederation (CC) – I think it was then still the BEC – as an in-house lawyer and was pitched straight into the middle of the process, including various JCT working groups. I was also lobbying government, giving policy advice, and taking calls from members at the sharp end who needed instant advice. It was a steep learning curve and I am very proud to say I learnt most of all from the highly experienced contractor commercial directors on the CC’s Contracts Committee. That turned out to be a distinct advantage throughout my subsequent career, and an ability to understand the various parties’ commercial points of view has stood me in good stead in contract negotiations. Something must have really stuck, as that was the start of a 26-year love affair with construction law in general and the JCT form in particular (other contract forms are available – or so I’m told). If I didn’t still love it, I wouldn’t still be doing it.

JCT: You are the new JCT chair. Can you tell us about the role and what your aims are for JCT over the coming years?

KK: I was excited to see the role of chair by chance whilst looking for definitive Covid guidance (if anyone has any, please let me know!). I immediately saw it as an opportunity after all these years to give something back to the industry and to JCT. I thought I might have a shot at it and was delighted, and a bit overwhelmed, to be chosen. Thanks to the ceaseless efforts of the many members who have given up their time and talents over all these years, JCT is still going strong, but it can only maintain that position by continuous improvement. I wouldn’t presume at this early stage to say what that continuous improvement looks like, save that it needs to be attentive to the needs of the industry and of its users. It is there to serve, not to promote any particular agenda or interest.

JCT: What are some of your personal career highlights? What are you most proud of about the industry and where do you think that it most needs to change?

KK: As to highlights, I’d say that being a partner in several law firms, whilst bringing up two sons, isn’t too shabby. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of seeing some large projects from inception to post-completion and working with those really great project teams – clients, professionals, contractors, specialists and agents, all pulling together for a common purpose – is the thing which makes it all worthwhile. This is a legal specialism full of real things and real people and it helps keep your feet firmly on the ground. What do we need to do as an industry? Nurture our young people. I’m very pro-European, pro-globalism, but to have to import skills and labour as an industry because you’ve failed to cultivate enough home-grown talent and opportunity is silly. I suppose I have at this point to confess that I haven’t actually managed to persuade either of my sons to join the UK construction industry. They are both in the environmental technology space, one as an analyst and one as a journalist.

JCT: What are the biggest issues facing the construction industry over the next five years?

KK: As above, education, succession, equality of opportunity. Environmental concerns. The impact of modular/offsite construction. Digital/smart technology. Levelling up, decentralisation, and the shift of power and organisations to the regions, combined with more remote working and the quest for work/life balance. The possibility that buildings may need to be designed for a variety of flexible uses during their lifetime. Please God, no more pandemics…

JCT: What makes JCT unique? Do you think JCT has a wider role to play in the industry beyond producing contracts?

KK: JCT’s age, history, and democratic – rather parliamentary – method of production, make it unique. They say that a contract is something you can “stick in a drawer and forget about” – at least until something goes wrong. However, they are also a vehicle for promoting positive behaviour modification and best practice. Again and again JCT has demonstrated this by reference to its adoption of new legislation, practices and technology. I’m very optimistic that we not only are, but can continue to be, a force for good in the industry.